At Kabam, we believe that the commonly used retention benchmarks today are holding the mobile gaming industry back.
Traditional retention metrics simply do not provide utility for where our company and the broader industry is heading. We are so confident in this belief that we have shifted our entire company strategy away from using traditional Day 1 to Day 90 (D1-D90) metrics. This was not a trivial decision—we have hundreds of millions of dollars invested into our vision of the future. But our results to date show great promise: the first game born from our new strategy, Marvel Contest of Champions, is on track to be the most popular Marvel-based video game of all time across any gaming platform, and it continues to grow its key audiences 18 months after launch.
If we are not focusing on traditional retention metrics, the obvious question then is what are we focusing on? The answer is multiyear retention. Kabam is one of the few mobile game companies that has been around long enough to even consider this degree of retention, and it is this experience that enabled the insight that D1, D30, and even D90 metrics are not predictive of long-term success. We now think exclusively in terms of years — not days, weeks, or months.
Given the relative nascency of the mobile games industry, it’s no surprise that it has no common parlance to refer to players who play games for years. Yet a significant portion of our existing player community today fall into this category. A good example is with our Castle Age fantasy game. Not only is it celebrating its seventh birthday—a huge feat given the assumed lifespan of most games—but its player base is still extraordinarily active. These players, which we call “Regulars,” lie at the core of our retention-defining work.
We hypothesized that standard D1-D90 metrics were not helpful in discovering if we had a game that Regulars could sink their teeth into for years. So we started by asking, “Of the Regulars still playing years after the launch of our older games, what was remarkable about them in the first few days/weeks when compared to other players that ended up leaving earlier?”
One of the dimensions that jumped out was time spent. Our Regulars on average play 15 hours a week, and our most dedicated players play over 40 hours a week! These numbers alone undercut the popular thinking that mobile gaming is inherently casual, and it challenged our company’s traditional design assumptions. As it became increasingly clear that our Regulars continued to play consistently over multiple years (and became the heart of our thriving player communities), we knew we had to completely throw out the idea of the typical “DAU.”
Recalibrating our strategy to focus on long-term player engagement meant we needed a radical new approach to our games. It is common practice for a mobile games company to launch a basic game and then iterate on it over time. We take a wildly different approach by first asking ourselves what type of gameplay will keep Regulars captivated for 10-plus years—and then we craft that experience for day one of the game. This approach is difficult because it requires a high degree of creative, technical, and live service systems to be in place, not to mention an unwavering mental and financial commitment. Fortunately, we’ve learned the hard way and have the experience of some long-lasting hits behind us already. In a sense, we were able to illuminate a successful path forward for the company by thinking backward across many years of serving dedicated audiences.
Yes, betting on mobile games that have a shelf life of double-digit years goes against the grain. But Kabam is forging new ground in both familiar and uncharted territory in today’s and tomorrow’s mobile gaming landscape, respectively. Thankfully, our extensive data—Marvel Contest of Champions alone generates over 1TB of data per day—clearly tells us that our games can and will support healthy player communities for years to come, as long as we design around compelling long-term experiences. Our recently announced Avatar game is being developed with this philosophy in mind, and we think players will be ecstatic with the results. The simple fact is this: if optimization and monetization are the driving focus behind a game’s development, that game is set up for failure. Today, mobile gamers need developers who passionately create games that people who love games love playing.
I have said before that our company is creating fewer, bigger, and bolder games. The scale at which our games operate requires this approach. Consequently, it lets us devote considerably more resources to each title (a Kabam game before factoring in marketing and live services costs on average $14 million), resulting in what we believe are unparalleled player experiences in terms of production values, gameplay, and social interaction. But what underlies all of our current and upcoming games is a Regular gameplay mantra that, frankly, disregards short-term retention metrics.
In my next piece I will go in-depth on what we believe the key ingredients are to a new game that successfully integrates the multi-year vision that we advocate. I will follow that up with how considering long-term retention impacts marketing activities throughout the game lifecycle—more specifically, how it shifts the focus away from variable to fixed costs. But before we can start those discussions, the mobile games industry must shift its gaze away from short-term retention metrics and focus on the long-term health of its player communities if we are to push forward in a meaningful way.
Kevin Chou is CEO and cofounder of Kabam, a world leader of massively multiplayer games for mobile devices.